We came back late last night from our trip to Rome, and here are my observations and ways to streamline our next visit:
DO take the train. It greatly simplified the experience, and it's a bit like the lottery in that the TrenItalia website might tell you that you couldn't place your order and try again later, and then email you tickets anyway. Free tickets!
DO opt for the family compartment if that's an option. Much fun will be had in pulling the seats towards each other to make beds, and closing the curtain to the outside world, and imagining ways to even heighten the experience, such as potted plants, a cooler of snacks, and a blanket. If your eldest child comes up the idea of a crate of kittens, all other notions will pale, and you'll spend the rest of the trip contemplating the fun of a closed train compartment and a crate of kittens.
DO bring gum. Any flavor. Perhaps unbeknownst to you train tunnels can really monkey with those inner ear chambers, leading you and your family to clutch your ears and shout "AAAAAWWAAAAHHH!" every time you enter, and particularly when you leave, a tunnel. This is less amusing than it sounds.
DO your deep breathing exercises if you are there during tourist season. The crowds are exhausting, much more so than simple crowds (a busy city I find energizing, a crowd of tourists is sapping, the more so perhaps because I know I'm adding to their weight)—keep centered.
DO go to Sant'Euchstachio, and further DO order the Gran Caffé or the Gran Cappucino, and DO tell your spouse to do the same. Elsewise, your spouse might have her turn at the bar with your eldest child and look quizzically at her coffee wondering what the heck the fuss is all about. And then when you come out from your turn grinning like a lunatic and waxing rhapsodic about the wondrous creamy foam, and your blessed life partner looks at you askew and says she didn't think it was anything to write home about and you figure out that she didn't order the right thing, it might increase her already cranky mood. And leave her petulant.
DO thank the gentleman who looks official but may not be (this is Italy after all) who fishes out a yuan to give to your little son to throw in the Trevi fountain. There is goodness, even in areas choked with visitors, cameras, and schlock.
DO skip Piazza Navona if you can, at least by day, during tourist season. Unless you want to see stands of art. There is a lot of that. The whole piazza is so full, you won't really be able to enjoy those splashing fountains.
DO put on a short sleeve shirt under your long-sleeve shirt. Your mom was right about layers. Eighty degrees in Rome is actually quite warm, particularly with all the walking, and your party will be eyeing those among you who had the forethought to wear an undershirt.
DO make reservations to eat outside at Gigetto, despite it's lackluster tripadadvisor rating, and order as many stuffed zucchini flowers as you can afford. The €3,00 order is just for one, so don't make the mistake of just ordering two orders for five people. Because you will be battling over every last petal with more vigor than you would anticipate given how tired you all were just 15 minutes before. These are stuffed zucchini flowers worth fighting for, perfectly battered and crispy without being the least greasy, filled with gooey mozzarella and one perfect anchovy for a depth that you heretofore thought impossible in a cheese filled flower. And the stem end of the blossom will have an almost artichoke-heart-like texture and earthiness. You will kiss your fingers and thank Jupiter for these magnificent creations. Incidentally, the pastas are also wonderful, especially the cannelloni with it's perfectly crusted cheesy-bechemel top, and the cacio e pepe (so simple and so good), and the fettucini al ragu. There appeared to be some plate of fried foods that looked pretty incredible. Look for it on the menu. The fellow next to us seemed to be vastly enjoying his plate of brains, so if that is your thing, by all means, consider it.
DO bring sketchbooks for drawing while waiting for your meal. There is so much to inspire art here.
DO spend time wandering around the neighborhood either before or after your meal. The Jewish Ghetto is fascinating, particularly if you have an interest in marginalized cultures (imagine ancient Romans, Jews, and Christians rubbing elbows in the area), and the neighborhood is vibrant and alive. Gigetto looks out over the Teatro di Marcello. Wander through the ruins, look for the bones and skull evidence of the old cemetery, imagine it as a fish market with citizens shouting and calling. You may get more out of this than out of the parts of Rome you pay to see.
DO get gelato at the sweet shop next to the Gigetto. I can personally recommend the uva fragola (strawberry grape, just like what is growing in our neighbors derelict yard—I think it is, or is cousin to, the concord) and the zafferano (saffron) with little bits like praline. It may well be the best gelato you've ever had, so eat it slowly and consider each bite. I recommend strolling through the ancient ruins as you enjoy the modern wonder of excellent gelato.
DO take the trouble of learning some of the stories behind the sights. The pantheon seems more miraculous if you know those columns came down the Nile in a barge and that early Christians believed the hole in the ceiling was made by pagan gods fleeing when the church was sanctified, the basilica of Giulia is more interesting if you know to look at the place where bored onlookers scratched games into the marble (the ancient Roman equivalent of Angry Birds), the crytoporticus is darker if you know it is where Caligulus was murdered, the Palatine Hill inspires more reverence if you know that it is the oldest inhabited sight in Rome (a settlement from the iron age was found here).
DO, particularly, read about the Vestal Virgins before seeing their house in the Forum. Perhaps it is just me, and I read "The Mists of Avalon" at an impressionable age, but I found the whole idea of a house of priestesses devoted to keeping the fires of Rome alive completely fascinating. Particularly later in the day, when the tourists thinned and I could look upon the mosaic of their floor in the waning sunlight, it was marvelous to imagine their days, their tasks, their community.
DO enter the Forum by way of the Campodoglio. Wonder aloud how one man could design this beautiful piazza, sculpt David, and paint the Sistine Chapel. And still have time to rob a few graves. Michelangelo was a wonder.
DO go to the Palatine Hill. Most tourists can't be bothered to climb the hill, and it is spectacular. Domus Flavia is completely amazing—imagine the center courtyard filled with water, the rooms bustling with toga-clad Romans, the dining room laid out with stuffed field mouse and peacock. Look out over the stadium and imagine the events held here for the entertainment of the emperor. Smell the wafting scent of wild mint that grows all over the Palatine. Walk through Augustus' house. The first emperor of Rome lived here. Amazing, isn't it? The coliseum might be where Romans watched people die for sport, the Forum may be where they conducted business, but the Palatine is where the lofty slept and ate and gave birth and died. Domus Flavia used to have the shiniest marble available so that Domitian could see if someone was about to knife him in the back. Didn't work, he was killed, perhaps by his wife. Think on that.
DO go into the Palatine museum. It's free with your ticket, and displays the details of the Palatine that fell to ruin. Frescos, marble floors, statues, and other artistic embellishments. Find the marble statue of the woman with the dress that looks like it is made of gossamer. Those details will give your imagination wing, and flesh out your picture of life on the Palatine.
DO remember that it is the negative experiences that add texture to the narrative. It doesn't have to be perfect. Later the remembrance of the smelly tourists crowded against you on the Coliseum stairs and the rude people who thrust their way in front of your child as she is trying to follow you up the train steps and knocking her in the chin, will create the spots of grey that a colorful day needs for illumination.
DON'T fall for it when your daughter tells you that her fashion forward boots are actually her most comfortable shoes. You'll see what I mean about half-way through the day when she takes an opportunity of taking off those charming instruments of torture and reveals feet swollen and splotched with alarming white patches. The smell won't be any good either.
DON'T sightsee in Rome in summer. Every sight will be hampered by waves of tourists that you must dodge and try to avoid getting in their photos (until you decide that it's more fun to "photo bomb" them, as Nicolas says). The flood of tourists will absolutely prevent you from really feeling the majesty and wonder that is ancient Rome. For the record, September is still summer.
DON'T decide that just because this really cool thing in Rome is only 10 minutes out of your way, it would really be a shame to miss it. When you are planning your day the night before your excursion, you are probably relaxed and hydrated and a little loose from wine. In reality, the mobs make everything take longer, and though are certainly interesting and engaging, it takes up valuable stimulation space in your brain.
DON'T pack your schedule so full of "sights" that you miss out on the opportunity to stumble upon something magical. Poor is the tourist who hops from one sight to the next, crossing items off a list, and really experiencing nothing except the crowds. Leave space to wander, explore. The wonder of Rome is that there will be a beautiful column standing in the middle of an alley, with no sign and no explanation. With nobody in that alley but you, you can imagine what was once there. When you are cramped in the Coliseum jockeying for space on the railing, that visualization is much harder, despite your memories of Russel Crowe brandishing his sword at a lion in Gladiator.
DON'T think one can just "pop in" to the Coliseum, so you might as well go since your ticket to the forum and the Palatine Hill includes all three sights. You can't pop in, and for a huge space, it is an energy drain of the largest degree. Maybe because of the crowds, maybe because the spirits of those that have lost their lives (and let's not forget their number or their innocence) exerts a pull on one's psyche. If you can skip it in good conscious, skip it. Note it's majesty from the outside, and be satisfied.
DON'T decide that you'll just find a place to eat dinner on the way back to the train station from the Forum. You may end up at place with illuminated geese, and strange pizza. Better to take the earlier train and just pick up dinner at the train station. You'll be glad you did when you can wake up your children the next morning for school without having to resort to bribing them with pastries.
DON'T forget your camera, fully loaded with battery power. You're going to need it.